Friday, May 10, 2013

Backlist files - "Tuesdays at the Castle"

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a child.  I was a child that loved reading, and loved anything to do with reading, and stories, and that included television shows about my favorite stories.  There existed, a long time ago, a show of fairy tales whose name I have long since forgotten.  I do remember, however, bits and pieces of the stories it told me.  One particular detail that always stuck out for me was a magic castle that would disappear and reappear in another place altogether, a castle that was enchanted so that only very special people could find it.  Why this one story element has continued to rattle around my head for *mumblemumble* years, I don’t know, but I was reminded again of this magic castle when I picked up Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle.  The castle in question here pulled no disappearing acts, but had plenty of magic of its own.

Celie, Lilah and Rolf are the royal children of King Glower the Seventy-Ninth and his wife the Queen, and all are occupants of Castle Glower, a magical, self-adjusting castle that puts Hogwarts’ moving staircases to shame.  Celie, especially, has a special relationship with the castle, and has worked tirelessly to create an atlas of its ever changing hallways.  When tragedy befalls the royal family and enemies beset its halls, the children must call upon Castle Glower to help them escape the machinations of the vicious Prince Khelsh.

This book is actually quite constrained, taking place exclusively inside the walls of Castle Glower, but it feels like a sprawling adventure.  That is the magic of the castle, and of Ms. George’s writing.  There is always some new passageway or trap door to sneak through, as the castle aids Celie and her siblings in their campaign against the malicious intruders.  Think Home Alone, but on a much bigger scale.  The castle shows its approval and disapproval of its occupants by the size and luxury (or lack thereof) of their rooms, and isn’t beyond messing with bathroom privileges either.  Celie, Lilah and Rolf are the perfect children for this castle.  They are brave, resourceful and kind, which makes it very easy to root for them to win the day.  But really, Castle Glower is the star of this book.  I dare you to read it and not dream just a little about wandering the castle’s ever-changing topography.

The sequel, Wednesdays in the Tower, has just been released, and I will be first in line to give it a go.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
2011, Bloomsbury
Personal copy

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review - "Whatever After - Fairest of All"

I remember having a collection of fractured fairy tales when I was younger, and reveling in the familiar tales gone wrong. This interest has continued into my adult years as I devour retellings of my favorite stories like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. But fairy tales have always been close to my heart, (you can only imagine how fond I am of TV’s“Once Upon a Time”) so when a popular author like Sarah Mlynowski comes out with a new series of fairy tale books, called Whatever After, you can bet I wanted to get my hands on them. Starting off the series is Fairest of All, a take on the Snow White tale (not to be confused with Serena Valentino’s Fairest of All, which is the Wicked Queen’s side of the story), which introduces us to our main characters and gives us our first glimpse of the magic involved in these story-busted tales.

If you’ve ever moved from one place to another, you know how Abby feels. Everything seems upside down. The kids play the wrong kind of tag, they don’t know the proper way to make peanut butter and banana sandwiches and they call Coke, Pepsi, etc. “soda”. Soda, I tell you! All this change makes Abby long for something familiar and normal. Unfortunately for her, “normal” isn’t in the cards. While doing some late night exploring, Abby’s younger brother Jonah discovers something mysterious about the creepy mirror in the basement, and before you can say “Mirror, mirror on the wall”, both Abby and Jonah (along with some furniture and a fair amount of law books) are sucked into the mirror and taken far, far away. A little bit of exploring later and the kids find themselves witness to a familiar scene: a haggard old woman attempting to give an apple to a beautiful girl. Just in time, Abby realizes what’s going on and stops Snow White from eating the poisoned apple, thus saving her life, and the day. But Abby and Jonah soon realize that saving the day has messed with Snow’s story, and now she might never get her prince and her happy ending. Now Abby, Jonah, Snow and seven dwarves (some of them women!) are on a mission to fix Snow’s story and find the Queen’s Magic Mirror to send the siblings back home.

There are so many little things about this book that I enjoyed, I’ll start there. First of all, I loved the personalities and the diversity of the seven dwarves. Making some of them female is genius; I’ve never come across that idea before. In fact, I enjoyed all the characters at play here. Abby, our heroine, is ultimately smart, creative and relatable. Jonah has heart (and stomach), bravery and is very loyal. And while Snow White starts out na├»ve and a little simple, she quickly grows into someone quite clever, though she will probably never be a good cook.

Mlynowski has a really good handle on her story, as well. She wastes no time in setting the scene. In two short chapters we are introduced to Abby and her new girl worries, and her brother and his mysterious discovery. From chapter three onward, we are off! The action moves at a very quick pace (at only 169 pages, it’s an easy one-sitter for an adult reader), but leaves nothing out. All the seeds are planted for an interesting series, and I can’t wait to see what stories Mlynowski muddles with next.

Whatever After: Fairest of all by Sarah Mlynowski
2012, Scholastic
Library copy

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review - "Goblin Secrets"

"All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women (and goblins) merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances;/ And one man in his time plays many parts..."

This is the second time I have begun a blog entry with this particular quote from Shakespeare, but who can blame me? It is a cracker jack quote. Here’s another, while I’m at it: “The play’s the thing…” Now imagine a world in which masks have been outlawed (for humans at least), and players are considered bandits of a sort, stealing away with their audience’s credulity. But on the fringes of society are rebels, considered outcasts, who go on with the show. This is the world presented to us in William Alexander’s rich Goblin Secrets.

Rownie has nothing. His family is merely a scrapheap collection of orphans, molded together by a Baba Yaga like witch named Graba. He used to have a brother, but said brother has disappeared. Rownie doesn’t even have a name, his own being merely a juvenilization of his older brother’s name, Rowan. Life seems to be going nowhere fast until one day he is pulled on stage during a goblin performance, and the whole world changes. Now Rownie has something to look forward to (illegal though it may be), a means of escaping Graba and new friends to help him along the way. Rownie lives with the goblins on the fringes of society and learns that he’s not the only one that’s been searching for news of his wayward brother. The goblins seek him as well, in hopes of enacting some ancient magic to save the city of Zombay from the rising waters that seek to consume them.

Goblin Secrets has some moments of levity, but on the whole goes into some rather dark places. Graba is a terrifying figure, perched on mechanical chicken legs and wielding inhuman powers and influence over her hoard of children. Rownie lives under an oppressive regime that has banned mask wearing and play-acting, led by a corrupt Lord Mayor and enforced by imposing Guards. Even the happy ending comes at the discovery of a huge and heartbreaking cost. I like that Alexander was not afraid to go dark, pulling the reader into the uncertain world of Zombay. Children can use a little darkness sometimes, as Lemony Snicket has taught us. And Alexander’s world creating is so richly detailed as to feel totally real, even quotidian; the goblins are more ordinary than the ordinary people.

I’m not sure what made me pick this title up. It doesn’t have a particularly remarkable cover, or catchy title, and yet I was drawn to it. This appears to be the case for others as well, because the book has gone out many times since I put in on the shelf, and it was awarded the National Book Award. Now that I know of the good stuff inside, I’ll be sure to try and get it in even more hands. I don’t think it will be a hard sell.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
2012, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Library copy